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Putin and Erdogan Agree to Syria Ceasefire As Violence Escalates

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  • Amid concerns that Turkey and Russia could be drawn into direct conflict in Syria, Turkish President Erdogan and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin agreed to a ceasefire.
  • New tensions broke out last week between Turkey and the Syrian regime— which is backed by Russia— after the regime launched airstrikes that killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers. Turkey responded by launching a military offensive against the Syrian government. 
  • While the new offensive marks an increase in hostilities, the recent escalation has been ongoing since the Syrian regime tried to take over the last rebel holdout, displacing nearly one million refugees.
  • Turkey, which believes the EU has not given it enough money to deal with the massive influx of refugees, retaliated by opening its border with Greece, which has created a separate problem in the region.

Renewed Conflict

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin agreed to a ceasefire in Syria Thursday amid recent escalations in the region.

Tensions between Turkey and Syria were heightened in December after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Russia, ramped up his military effort to take over the Idlib province. Idlib remains the last rebel stronghold in Syria.

The conflict reached a breaking point last week when the Syrian regime launched airstrikes that killed at least 33 Turkish troops, marking the worst military losses the Turkish army has seen in a single attack throughout the nine-year war in Syria.

Shortly after, Turkey launched a counteroffensive against the Syrian regime dubbed Operation Spring Shield.

Since then, violence has broken out all over Idlib. Turkey has launched airstrikes, ground offensives, and downed planes while Syrian forces have fought back. 

Right now, it is unclear how many people on both sides have died due to difficulties assessing the situation on the ground and efforts by the Turkish government to censor independent media.

The conflict is incredibly significant as it represents the largest and most serious escalation of Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian war. In fact, some experts have even described it as a direct war between Turkey and the Syrian regime.

This is quite notable because the conflicts between Turkey and Syrian have largely been fought through and with proxies. The two rarely confront each other, which makes the stakes even higher.

Russia, NATO, and the Ceasefire

While the new ceasefire reached by the two leaders may alleviate the situation, many are still worried that the new outbreak of violence could risk drawing Russia into a direct war with Turkey.

While Russia has been backing Syria, they have denied all responsibility for the airstrikes that killed the Turkish troops and set the offensive in motion.

Turkey, for its part, has been very careful not to directly blame Russia for the airstrike and instead has fully placed the fault on the Syrian regime.

While that might not be entirely true, the situation is complicated. By not implicating Russia, Turkey may be able to deescalate the situation and leave the door open for diplomacy.

To that point, Turkey has also said its operation is not meant to confront Russia.

Russia, at least for now, has refrained from intervening, which does seem to indicate that it does not want to get drawn into a war with Turkey.

Still, if something were to happen, it could create a situation where Turkey could be in direct conflict with Russian and Iranian forces, which also back the Syrian regime.

That, in turn, could drag in more powers. Turkey is a NATO member, and as badly as NATO, Europe, the U.S., and other Turkish allies do not want to involved in a war against Russia, they might not have much of a choice if things get worse.

There is also a problem with putting too much faith in a ceasefire: it did not work before.

Russia and Turkey agreed to another ceasefire under the 2018 Sochi agreement, but that largely fell apart.

While the details of the current ceasefire are still being hashed out, it is unclear if the new agreement will be more effective or if it will ultimately have the same fate.

Refugees and Greece

There is also another problem that has come from the Syrian regime trying to gain power over Idlib— refugees.

Idlib is home to about three million people, many of whom are refugees who have been forced from other parts of Syria.

Since Dec. 1, nearly one million people have been displaced by the Syrian regime— the biggest single displacement since the war started.

Many of those civilians are women and children, and many are living in dangerous conditions, sleeping outside or in tents in below-freezing conditions.

When Erdogan announced that he was starting the offensive, he also said that he was opening Turkey’s borders with Greece to Syrian refugees.

Greece, which has already taken in 3.7 million refugees, condemned the move.

It accused Turkey of using the refugees as “pawns” to pressure the European Union (E.U.) into giving them more money for the refugee crisis or to support their goals in the Syrian war.

This has also been echoed by the E.U. Council, which said in a statement that it “expresses its solidarity with Greece” and “strongly rejects Turkey’s use of migratory pressure for political purposes.”

Over the last few days, the situation has escalated rapidly. Greek forces have prevented the refugees from entering, reportedly pushing them back into Turkey.

Turkey responded Wednesday by sending 1,000 police to the border to resist the pushback. The Turkish government also accused Greece of firing live rounds at the refugees, killing at least three.

Greece denied the claims, calling them “fake news.”

Meanwhile, the Greek government said their border forces had prevented nearly 35,000 people from entering over the past five days, and arrested 244. It also said it is preparing to deport hundreds of others who made it through.

See what others are saying: (Al Jazeera) (Axios) (Vox)

International

E.U. and U.S. Sanction Russian Officials Over Navalny Detention

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  • The E.U. and U.S. coordinated new sanctions against seven Russian officials tied to the current fate of activist and Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
  • More efforts are expected to follow, with officials claiming that 14 Russian entities tied to the manufacturing of Novichok – the rare nerve agents that supposedly poisoned Navalny – are the next to be sanctioned.
  • Despite the sanctions, Biden’s administration hopes to be able to work with Russia on other world issues, such as nuclear arms in Iran and North Korea.
  • Navalny himself isn’t likely to benefit from the sanctions as he’s serving a 2.5-year prison sentence in one of Russia’s most notorious penal colonies.

Coordinated Efforts by E.U. and U.S.

The U.S. and E.U. both announced coordinated sanctions against Russia Tuesday morning over the poisoning, arrest, and detention of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

In particular, seven senior officials are targeted by the sanctions.

  • Federal Security Service Director Aleksandr Bortnikov
  • Chief of the Presidential Policy Directorate Andrei Yarin
  • First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office Sergei Kiriyenko
  • Deputy Minister of Defense Aleksey Krivoruchko
  • Deputy Minister of Defense Pavel Popov
  • Federal Penitentiary Service director Alexander Kalashnikov
  • Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov.

Both the E.U. and U.S. also plan to add fourteen entities that are involved in making the extremely deadly Russian nerve agent Novichok.

First Step For Biden

These sanctions are the first such action by the Biden administration against Russia and seem to be a tone shift from the previous administration. The Trump administration was considered relatively soft on Russia and only enacted a few sanctions over election interference, which were only softly enforced.

One U.S. official, according to NBC News reportedly said, that “today is the first such response, and there will be more to come.”

“The United States is neither seeking to reset our relations with Russia nor are we seeking to escalate,” the official went on to add.

The man at the center of all this, Alexei Navalny, has been an outspoken critic of Putin who was arrested when he returned to Russia from Germany after being treated for Novichok poisoning.

He was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison over alleged fraud crimes and is reported to have been sent to one of Russia’s worst penal colonies outside of the city of Pokrov to serve out his term.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (NPR) (NBC News)

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Biden Faces Criticism Over U.S. Airstrike in Syria

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  • On Friday, the U.S. conducted an airstrike against an Iranian-back militia in Syria after it shot rockets into northern Iraq and injured U.S. service personnel.
  • The airstrike marks the first in Biden’s presidency, and while normally a routine response, it caused particular backlash against the president, who campaigned on getting out of “forever wars” in the region.
  • Many felt like Biden was more concerned with bombing people in the Middle-East than he was with passing his $1.9 trillion stimulus package, which was being debated by Congress at the time.
  • The targeting of an Iranian-backed militia likely didn’t help efforts to start informal talks with Iran on Sunday in an effort to reignite the Iran Nuclear Deal.

Striking Back Against Militias

The U.S. military conducted an airstrike on an Iranian-backed militia in Syria on Friday, marking it as the first such airstrike under President Joe Biden’s term.

The airstrike was conducted as retaliation after the militia launched rockets into northern Iraq; killing civilians, contractors, and injuring a U.S. service member as well as other coalition troops.

Despite airstrikes being a routine response for such situations over the last 20 years, the decision caused Biden to face intense backlash in the U.S.

For many, it set the tone and seemed to contradict some of his earlier stances when running for office. In 2019, for instance, Biden made it clear that he wanted to get out of Iraq as soon as possible, as well as speed up the removal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. However, such airstrikes are often blamed for further entrenching the U.S. in the region.

Biden received criticism across the political spectrum, with only a few conservatives praising the airstrike as a necessary move to protect U.S. troops.

In Congress, many Democrats called the move unconstitutional, a stance the party has had since at least 2018 when Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said a similar airstrike conducted by President Trump required the approval of Congress. The Biden administration pushed back against this, sending a letter to Congress on Sunday saying the president had the power to use limited force without the body’s approval via the War Power Act.

Public Perception in a Downward Spiral

Many Americans have mocked Biden for seemingly feeling comfortable enough to use his executive power to bomb militias while also expressing apprehension toward using that same power to forgive student loans.

Others pushed back against the idea that the airstrike was a form of defensive retaliation

“This latest Biden airstrike is being spun as “defensive” and “retaliatory” despite its targeting a nation the US invaded (Syria) in response to alleged attacks on US forces in another nation the US invaded (Iraq),” wrote one user on Twitter, “You can’t invade a nation and then claim self-defense there. Ever.”

Some of the biggest criticism the president received came from those who said it seemed like his priorities were off-base. Because while the airstrike was conducted, Congress was debating his $1.9 trillion stimulus package.

Civil Rights activist Ja’Mal Green, for instance, tweeted, “We didn’t flip Georgia Blue for Biden to air strike Syria. We flipped Georgia Blue for our $2,000 Stimulus Checks.”

However, it’s worth noting that there’s not much Biden can do right now to push his stimulus package through Congress, other than attempt to convince some on-the-fence senators like Joe Manchin (D-WV). Still, the perception of confused priorities was enough to anger many.

All of this likely didn’t help when the E.U. foreign policy chief, on behalf of all the countries who signed the Iran Nuclear deal, attempted to convince Iran to engage in informal talks to try and restart the deal on Sunday. A proposal was shot down by Iran.

Considering the recent actions and statements by the United States and three European powers, Iran does not consider this the time to hold an informal meeting with these countries,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh

See what others are saying: (BBC) (NBC) (CNN)

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Nigerian Gunmen Kidnap Over 300 Students From Boarding School

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  • Gunmen abducted 317 girls from a Nigerian boarding school early Friday morning, making it the second major abduction in the northwest area of the country in over a week.
  • Militants loaded some girls on trucks while others were walked into the nearby Rugu forest, which covers hundreds of miles and is spread over three states.
  • Authorities believe these abductions are being carried out by armed bandit groups seeking random rather than the jihadist groups in the region.
  • According to terror analysts, kidnapping is quickly becoming one of the most thriving industries in Nigeria and has led to 10.5 million Nigerian children being out of school – the most of any nation.

Abductions Before Dawn

Gunmen abducted 317 students early Friday morning from the Nigerian Government Girls Secondary School in Jangebe, Zamfara state.

They entered the building shooting, although it’s clear if anyone was hurt, and forced many girls onto trucks while others into the nearby Rugu forest, which covers hundreds of square miles and crosses multiple states. Some girls escaped, but by morning it was clear to the local community that hundreds were taken.

Zamfara police and security forces, backed by Nigerian army reinforcements, said they are in pursuit of the abductors.

This abduction is the second in a little over a week in the northwest area of the country. At the Kagara Government Science College in Niger state, dozens of schoolboys were abducted on February 17.

In December, 344 boys in Katsina state were also abducted before being freed a week later. At the time, the kidnappers claimed a ransom had been paid, a common motivation for such abductions, but security forces say the children were freed after they had surrounded the group.

Was the Kidnapping for Ransom?

Many abductions have a monetary aspect, with ransoms quickly being demanded; however, it’s currently unclear if Friday’s events were carried out by local bandits looking for a payout or one of the nation’s myriad of jihadist groups that occasionally take hostages.

Most are leaning towards believing this was a kidnapping for ransom due to it quickly becoming the nation’s most thriving industry, according to Bulama Bukarti, a terror analyst and columnist of northern Nigeria’s largest paper.

Unfortunately, the constant kidnapping in less-stable parts of the country, along with economic hardships, have caused parents to pull their children out of schools. Currently, there are more than 10.5 million Nigerian children out of school, the most of any nation. The issue is so prevalent that 1 in 5 of the world’s unschooled children are in Nigeria.

The government has struggled to respond to the rise of kidnappings, with officials both on the civilian side and within the military unsure of how to proceed. On one hand, there are those who want to deal with the issue head-on and attack kidnappers, but others want to try and resolve the issue with dialogue.

See what others are Saying: (NPR) (CNN) (Wall Street Journal)

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